Friday, June 15, 2007

Concert Review - The National - St. Louis, MO - June 11, 2007

Grower. This term now seems be a requirement for inclusion in any article or review that discusses The National and their 2005 album, Alligator, or their current outstanding album, Boxer. The fashionable/lazy take on the band is that appreciation for their previous album, 2005’s Alligator, grew steadily in the months after its release, despite being originally met with indifference and mixed reviews (“not quite as bracing as their stellar sophomore outing,” was Pitchfork’s take on the album). Yet by the end of the year, the album appeared with fawning praise on many of the now-used-for-toilet-paper Best Of 2005 lists. And as a result, 2007’s Boxer was met with a high level of anticipation. You know, a Grower.

Or, as my brother cynically said as we waited for The National to take the stage at the Duck Room in St. Louis, the true definition of a Grower is “I didn’t like it until you liked it, and now I like it, too.” And so, with the baggage of being Growers firmly saddled to their collective shoulders, The National made their debut appearance in St. Louis on Monday, delivering a performance that, like much of their last three albums, alternated between quiet, restrained, fuck-it-all songs of resignation and defeat, to fist-pumping songs of ear-splitting holy racket.

The end result was an engaging and exciting hour-plus show that I will remember as one of the best concerts I’ve seen. Although the tunes strayed little from their album versions, the band’s excellent rhythm work and lead vocalist Matt Berninger’s stage presence – with vocals delivered in a world-weary talking baritone – coupled to convey all the emotions and themes that have garnered Boxer so much attention.

In a live setting, this was the band’s greatest strength. Although the Duck Room’s archaic sound system (think John Cusack holding up the boombox in Say Anything) sometimes couldn’t handle the waves of noise and squall during songs like “Mr. November” or “Abel,” the band’s performance still managed to push across all the themes and emotions that have made both Alligator and Boxer such Grow…er, albums that are getting lots of appreciation after initial indifference.

It also helps that Berninger is such a distinctive frontman. In songs like “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” “Start a War,” and “Apartment Story,” he was able to convey all the misery, defeat, and regret of those songs with little more than a well-timed facial expression or nervous tick of flailing arms, without coming across as some sort of emotional, pretentious wine-ass. Likewise, screamers like “Mr. November,” “Squalor Victoria,” and the closer “Abel,” where Berninger roamed the stage and pounded his open palms on the rafters, displayed enough righteous anger and angst to make aging Grungers like myself bang those heads one more time.

Right now The National are riding a wave of indie infallibility, as both fans’ and critics’ darlings. Alligator is rightly considered one of the best albums of the last few years, and Boxer already seems penciled in to top various end-of-year lists. And even though indiedom is a cruel bitch who eats her young (even Growers!), for one night at least the band delivered a performance to surpass the hype.

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